What Exactly Does a Librarian Do? Everything.
Introducing a New Column by Kristen Arnett
Growing up, I liked to imagine what it would be like to work in a library. What little I knew about them was what I’d gleaned from movies and TV because my conservative parents never took us to any and only let me read books they purchased from the Bible Book Store. I didn’t know any librarians in real life—outside of the elderly woman who ran our tiny school media center—but I understood librarians were smart and savvy. Cool and collected. They were everything my rowdy, boundary-busting, literature-hating family was not. I envisioned a sweet future for myself sitting behind an elaborately carved wooden desk, surrounded by towering stacks of leather-bound books. I’d read for hours in total silence, vanilla and almond perfuming the air. Pages wafting in a gentle breeze. Nobody around to bother me. With librarianship, I’d finally have solitude. Peace.
I cling to these happy memories whenever somebody breaks the copy machine for the fourth time that day by jamming a ballpoint pen inside the feed tray. Or spills their kale smoothie down the side of the circulation desk. Or when a person decides to eat an extra large pizza while vaping in the women’s bathroom. I think: remember why you chose this job? The elegance? And I laugh.
The reality of being a librarian is that it’s hardly ever about sitting down and it has absolutely nothing to do with peace and quiet. It’s about assisting others. It’s about community service. Librarianship asks you to do 12 things at once and then when you’re in the middle of those projects wonders if you’ve got any tax forms left or an eclipse viewer. It’s endless questions. It’s “my two dollar fine pays your salary.” It’s a grubby little hand at storytime grabbing your leg and smearing glitter glue down the side of pants you’ve already worn twice that week. It’s finding the right answer to a question and reveling in that small joy for a bare moment before another patron comes up to ask you something even weirder. It’s library work, and it’s exhausting.
A certain type of person gravitates toward this field. It’s generally people with a thirst for research, those who love books, and individuals who understand they’ll never pay back their student loans. Every job in a library depends on someone else’s to function. Libraries are buzzing hives filled with extremely busy, frazzled, overworked people. Staff and Librarians work together to make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible, which it NEVER, EVER DOES. Lots of different types of library work happens everywhere—new jobs crop up daily, thanks to evolving tech and shifting community needs—but there are some standard positions that remain eternal.
“The reality of being a librarian is that it’s hardly ever about sitting down and it has absolutely nothing to do with peace and quiet. It’s about assisting others.”
First of all, there’s the backbone of the library: technical services. These thankless individuals work in stuffy back rooms cataloging your books and movies, maintaining a plethora of exciting, information-rich databases so that students can continue to only use JSTOR for their assignments. They understand systems that have operating manuals that read like misprinted IKEA furniture assembly instructions. Technical services staff are expected to deliver items that aren’t yet available because they haven’t been published, find books that are absolutely out of print, and expected to work a “couple extra hours over the holiday break” because someone in the Art History department wants access to Interlibrary Loan they won’t even pick up until after New Years. Okay, yes, I’m talking about me here.
Then you have your public services staff. They man the circulation and reference desks, helping patrons on the frontlines by answering continuous, nonsensical questions. These employees have to locate a book when all the patron knows is that the spine was possibly red with black writing and that there was maybe a dog in it. Public services jobs are for those lucky individuals who have “people skills,” but those skills are tested daily by someone breaking the copy machine (again), and then yelling about fines, the renewal policy, and the fact they can’t borrow some half-n-half from the staff fridge. Nobody wants to deal with a patron looking at porn again on the public computer. These are library employees who go home and drink a lot. All right, I’m also talking about myself here.
What about youth services? It requires imagination to do this work. It takes patience. It means strained vocal chords from yelling over a room of screaming kids who’ve all eaten too many Publix sugar cookies at a summer reading event. To understand youth programming, you’ve gotta read aloud to a group of children who ask: “Ms Kristen, why you got that metal thing stuck to your tongue?” These individuals don’t bat an eye when a child pees on the storytime rug and then another kid sits directly in the spreading puddle. They somehow keep a smile plastered to their face when they accidentally tuck their skirt into their underwear in the bathroom and walk back into a full program because no one told them about it even though there were at least 3 other women standing in line for the sink. Again: me. And I’m still mad about this.
What I’m saying about library “tropes” is that they apply to anyone who works in a library because you have to know how to do everyone else’s job. Librarianship is the understanding that maintaining a library is a shared responsibility. You’re on call to help catalog a book someone requested for a massive paper and then promptly forgot about. You’ll need to sit a stint at the circulation desk because someone else got the flu from working a storytime where half the kids showed up with runny noses and rubbed their hands all over the safety scissors. Libraries are community spaces for patrons as well as for library staff. You perform all the roles, all the time. You learn to love it. I understand now that the job I thought I’d have isn’t the one I wound up with, but guess what? I like it better that way. At the end of the day, librarianship is mostly about trying to understand the needs of people. It is still about knowing. And that’s something I like.
Another thing I like: getting to tell all of you that my Tales of the Library will be a recurring bimonthly column for Lit Hub! Join me next time where we’ll discuss those burning reference desk questions, like “Can you help me set up an online dating profile?”